Part 1: 1990: “That’s the story of my life”

Part 1: 1990: “That’s the story of my life”

“High school seemed like such a blur,” sings Social Distortion’s Mike Ness at the start of the band’s 1990 song “Story Of My Life.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I turned 18 that year, and high school had flown by in a haze of doubt, fear, confusion, hormones, hopelessness, humiliation, and the occasional triumph. With maybe even a little education sprinkled in here and there.

A lot of my education came from punk rock. That may be a less than glowing reflection on the state of the public schools back then, but really, punk showed me that being autodidactic was something to embrace. Do it yourself became the mantra of ’90s punk—one that punk would eventually buck against, to the point of rejecting it completely in some quarters. But that had yet to go down when I first heard Ness growl forlornly about how society and necessity had led him to punk: “I went downtown to look for a job / I had no training, no experience to speak of / And I looked at the hole in my jeans / And I turned and headed back.”

Where did Ness head back to? The punk scene. Just as he was in the process of resurrecting Social Distortion—turning it from a scrappy punk gang into the first big punk breakthrough of the ’90s—I was also walking around with holes in my jeans, looking for a job. I found one in a warehouse. I spent what little extra money I had on music, mostly punk records. 

Social Distortion was released in March of 1990, the same month I dropped out of high school, halfway through my senior year—mostly because I’d decided that I’d rather learn about life on my own than in a classroom. Punk had been Ness’ classroom, and he’d learned many tough lessons there as Social Distortion weathered the tumultuous hardcore scene of the ’80s (and his troubles with substance abuse and the law) before bouncing back as stripped-down, mid-tempo roots-rockers on Social Distortion.

Along with “Story Of My Life,” the album’s big hit is “Ball And Chain,” a song that might have been swiped straight from Johnny Cash’s songbook—in case anyone missed the connection, a cover of Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” precedes “Ball And Chain” on Social Distortion. Ness showed no shame in playing the retro card. The fact that Social Distortion toured that year with a lineup that was unthinkably mismatched at the time—alongside Neil Young and Sonic Youth—symbolized just where Social Distortion fell on the rock spectrum circa 1990. On one side was Young and his gritty, timeless Americana; on the other was Sonic Youth and its appropriation of punk ethos and energy to help form the bedrock of ’90s alternative rock.

As great as it is, Social Distortion was an anachronism in 1990—and so was punk. Most of Social D’s contemporaries from the ’80s weren’t doing well. Contrary to The Exploited’s 1981 rallying cry, punk was dead. Or at least it felt that way to me. All my favorite punk bands at the time—The Clash, The Jam, Subhumans, Misfits, Minor Threat, Black Flag—had broken up long before I’d started listening to them. Across the country, punk had disintegrated into a bedlam of conflicting and sometimes compromised sounds. In 1990, what we now know as ’90s punk didn’t exist; it was a buffet of leftovers from the ’80s mixed with some promising early releases by bands that would soon go on to be legendary—although not always for the best reasons.

Besides Social Distortion, two of the most important punk albums of 1990 came from veterans of the ’80s punk scene: Bad Religion’s Against The Grain and Fugazi’s Repeater. Interestingly, the first was part of a return to hardcore’s traditions while the latter strained to be as musically progressive as it possibly could. Both, though, were stridently outspoken. Okay, so Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye more or less barked, but Graffin’s harshness was softened by deeply layered backup harmonies, and MacKaye’s was offset by the more sultry vocals of his fellow singer-guitarist, Guy Picciotto. 

That said, the two bands didn’t sound anything alike. Bad Religion, one of the leading lights in California hardcore in the ’80s, had returned from a long hiatus by hardening and strengthening the vitriolic attack of its early political hardcore. By Against The Grain, Bad Religion was at the top of its game. Melodic and eloquent, its anti-authoritarian anthems would echo in the sounds of hundreds of other groups, long after Bad Religion would venture into radio-friendly, major-label punk during the mid-’90s.

Fugazi, on the other hand, staunchly and stridently held to the principles of anti-commercialism—fanatically so. The group only played all-ages shows, so as not to alienate younger fans for the sake of higher bar sales for the promoters. It kept ticket prices to a minimum, usually no higher than five dollars. It refused to sell band-related merchandise of any kind, except for recorded versions of their music, which MacKaye released at low cost on his own label, Dischord Records. On Repeater, there’s even a song called “Merchandise.” In it, Picciotto sneers, “What could a businessman ever want more / Than to have us sucking in his store?” MacKaye shouts in response, “You are not what you own.” With slogans like that, who needs a logo? 

As heavy-handed as it was, it set the tone for a certain faction of integrity-obsessed punk in the ’90s. And it was prophetic. Fugazi had no way of predicting how alien punk would look by the mid-’90s, with Green Day and The Offspring catapulting to multiplatinum status. MacKaye and Picciotto inoculated as much of punkdom against capitalist temptation as they could before the populist pandemic hit. If that seems a bit puritanical, well, that’s because it sort of was.

Fugazi did more than just set the bar for punk ethics in the ’90s; the band spawned an entire subgenre. Wiry, angular, and bristling with jaw-clenched tension and release, Repeater’s sinewy agitprop fell somewhere between the artiness of post-punk and the full-throated roar of hardcore. It became known, bluntly enough, as post-hardcore. Fugazi didn’t singlehandedly invent this new form; it had been fomenting for years and was beginning to erupt everywhere. Contemporaries of Fugazi such as San Diego’s jittery Pitchfork—which spawned Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From The Crypt—showed that hardcore could be nerdy, arty, brainy, brittle, and open to a more complex mode of address, one that relied less on heavy riffs and preachy lyrics and more an wiggling around the monolithic image of hardcore. 

Fugazi’s own Dischord Records was hitting a stretch of relative inactivity, too; the first emo explosion of the mid-’80s, led by Picciotto’s former band, Rites Of Spring, had sputtered out, as had most of its contemporaries. Besides Repeater, the most exciting—and blindingly original—post-hardcore on Dischord was a misfit batch of kids called Shudder To Think. Their sophomore album, Ten Spot, came out on Dischord in ’90. Singularly weird and sung in a cryptic falsetto, it influenced almost no one—a pattern that Shudder To Think would follow in an astounding way in the years to come.

While some were reinventing hardcore in 1990, others were reviving the old ways for a new age. New York hardcore, which had been a vastly powerful force in the ’80s, was in a state of flux that year. Most of the prominent NYHC groups (Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Sick Of It All, Madball, Bold, Youth Of Today, Gorilla Biscuits) had either broken up or gone on hiatus. It didn’t help that the stereotype of tough-guy East Coast hardcore—mixed with some of those bands’ militant beliefs in the abstinence-based straightedge lifestyle and, of all things, Hare Krishna—had reached the end of its sustainability, at least for the time being. Members of those bands would soon regroup, launching everyone from Quicksand and CIV to Shelter and Texas Is The Reason and also inspire a wave of non-NYHC bands like Integrity and Earth Crisis that would set the stage for what would come to be known as metalcore. In 1990, though, that was all mostly simmering under the surface, not yet ready to boil over.

Curiously, the hardcore scene over in New Jersey was far more vibrant in 1990. A pair of unrelated Jersey bands—the screamingly negative, metallic Rorschach and the righteously positive, emo-inflected Turning Point—put out their only full-length albums that year (Remain Sedate and It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn, respectively). Neither band was very big in 1990, and both would disband within a couple years. In their own way, though, those two passionate, innovative records stand the test of time—and would prove themselves to be widely influential by decade’s end.

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Across the continent, another guitar-heavy kind of rock was clawing its way up through the sludge. Seattle’s tiny Sub Pop Records was becoming a lightning rod for major-label interest thanks to the signing of the label’s alum Soundgarden—not to mention the overwhelming buzz being kicked up by Bleach, the 1989 Sub Pop debut of Nirvana. Sub Pop had always styled itself as a punk label, however, and just as grunge was reaching critical mass, the imprint took a chance on the Dwarves, a sleazy, searing punk band that took GG Allin’s OD-in-the-garage aesthetic and added the buzzing velocity of early Bad Brains. The Dwarves’ first Sub Pop full-length, 1990’s Blood Guts & Pussy, featured one of the most unforgettable album covers of the decade: a photograph of a little person and two full-sized women, bathed in blood and holding a dead rabbit as if it were Satanic sacrifice. It was an acidic, idiotic reminder that punk could still shock and offend (and flat-out fucking rock).

At the same time, that goofy, hooky version of West Coast punk was already seeping into the sounds of established bands like NOFX and wet-behind-the-ears newcomers like Green Day, whose dorky, endearing debut 39/Smooth came out in the spring of 1990.

Pop-punk was destined to dominate ’90s punk, but it was still marshaling its energy in 1990. All—a bubbly band that had descended from one of the first bands in the ’80s to combine hardcore and pure pop, the Descendents—released its third full-length, Allroy Saves, thus cementing its position as one of the workhorses of ’90s pop-punk that most people wound up taking for granted. A far more brooding and cerebral take on pop-punk came from the Bay Area in the form of Jawbreaker. The promising trio unleashed its debut, Unfun, in 1990, which featured unusual guitar-bass interplay and the raspy poetics of frontman Blake Schwarzenbach. It wasn’t a huge hit, even by underground standards, but it (and subsequent Jawbreaker albums) would have a butterfly effect on punk by the end of the ’90s. The same could be said of 39/Smooth, the debut album by Jawbreaker’s Bay Area neighbor, Green Day. Made by a bouncy trio of long-haired high-school kids with an uncanny knack for classic power-pop hooks, 39/Smooth codified the emerging pop-punk sound of the ’90s while being blissfully oblivious of its own bankability.

In 1990, I was totally clueless that pop-punk was about to become the lingua franca of ’90s punk—or that I was soon to be playing in a pop-punk band myself, one that would wind up recording an album with Mass Giorgini, one of the most notable pop-punk producers of the decade. That summer, though, I did get to see the granddaddy of all pop-punk bands (if not all punk bands), the Ramones. If I needed any confirmation that punk had become something of a museum display, that show was it. The veteran New York band’s tour came to the suburbs of Denver, specifically a family-friendly amphitheater called Fiddler’s Green that’s surrounded by a spotless office park. CBGB it wasn’t.

The Ramones rocked, but the sound was lost in the huge, open-air venue. They played insanely early. The sun was still up. The venue was half empty. Myself and a few dozen other kids jumped up and down in the aisles, not even having the good sense to come together to form a proper mosh pit. What the fuck did we know? We’d been lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to catch the tail-end of a once vital movement. 1990 felt like the death of something—not a rebirth of the likes of which punk rock had never seen, and will likely never see again.

On that note, welcome to Fear Of A Punk Decade. In each monthly installment over the next nine months, I’ll cover a single year of the ’90s—starting here, with 1990—until we end up at 1999 sometime in the spring of 2014. In the interest of conciseness, Fear Of A Punk Decade will skim the surface of the major punk releases of every given year of the ’90s, small and large, hopefully providing some context and insight (illustrated with the occasional anecdote drawn from my own experiences as a concertgoer, show promoter, touring musician, music writer, zine maker, record store clerk, and all-around punk nerd throughout that decade).

If this concept sounds vaguely familiar to longtime A.V. Club readers, it’s because we’ve done it before—kind of. A couple years ago, former A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden wrote a fantastic monthly column titled Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?. In it, Hyden covered ’90s alt-rock year by year. In Fear Of A Punk Decade, I’ll be dealing with a more obscure category of music, but I will also be trying to strike the golden mean between punk bands that made it huge in the ’90s—Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid, and so on—and the lesser-known groups that often defined themselves in opposition to so-called mainstream punk.

Which leaves us with a question: When it comes to the ’90s, what do we consider punk? Green Day is the flashpoint of this controversy—and in this case, I’ll be taking the long view (pun intended). In Fear Of A Punk Decade, all manner of punk-related subgenres will be welcome: pop-punk, ska-punk, street punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, emo, screamo, crust, powerviolence, riot grrrl, and so on. I’ll also dip into some nonmusical aspects of ’90s punk: zines, activism, gender, sexuality, depictions in the media, and even fashion (or the lack thereof). If you’re not familiar with those subgenres, that will change. If you are familiar with them—and perhaps even have strong opinions concerning them—the comments section will be the perfect place to hash out arguments about what’s punk, what isn’t, and what’s been criminally included or excluded. But keep in mind that there's no way I'll be able to mention everything, and that some important bands will be left for later in the series, when they've made more seminal albums.

Oh, and in case everyone hasn’t figured it out already: The name of the column, in spite of appearances, is not a Public Enemy reference, at least not directly. It’s a play on Fear Of A Punk Planet, the 1990 album by veteran California punk band The Vandals. It isn’t an indispensible punk classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an interesting specimen of the species. In addition to cameos by Frank Zappa offspring Dweezil and Moon Unit, the goofy record features two guests who would become vastly more famous in the ’90s and beyond: drummer Josh Freese, who’d eventually play in everything from Nine Inch Nails to Guns N’ Roses, and actor Kelsey Grammer, who had yet to move from the supporting cast of Cheers to sitcom superstardom in Frasier. Trivia aside, Fear Of A Punk Planet spoofed the fact that, unlike rap (and particularly Public Enemy’s scathing reinvention of it), punk no longer felt like any kind of threat in 1990. It had, by and large, become a caricature of itself. Whether the punk of the ’90s destroyed or reinforced that is something we’ll discuss over the next few months.

In hindsight, ’90s punk was kind of ridiculous, and it was kind of glorious, and it was everything in between. It altered the contours of the genre. It set the stage for what would become the so-called mall-punk of the ’00s. It made every attempt to exalt itself, and every attempt to sabotage itself. And in many ways, it remains the most momentous decade punk ever experienced, reverberating from the pinnacle of the pop-culture food chain all the way down to the lowliest gutter. It flew by in a haze of doubt, fear, confusion, hormones, hopelessness, humiliation, and the occasional triumph. With maybe even a little education sprinkled in here and there. Now that the groundwork's out of the way: Let’s go.


Fear Of 1991: Was 1991 the year punk broke? Well, yes and no. Next month in Fear Of A Punk Decade we’ll look at the rise of alternative rock, its split with punk rock, and how the first Lollapalooza summed up that schism. Accordingly, 1991 is the year that ’90s punk as we know it truly began to take shape. There’s a lot to cover: Fugazi cribbing from Bill Hicks, Henry Rollins trying to be Bill Hicks, and watershed albums by Screeching Weasel, Pegboy, Nation Of Ulysses, and Born Against, for starters. Oh, and then there’s the posthumous CD discography of an oddball, then-unknown outfit called Operation Ivy. Take warning.

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